14 January 2009

Tokyo, Ueno Park

A city's parks are often a good measure of its civic pride: witness the beloved expanses of New York's Central Park, the oasis of calm in a bustling metropolis that is London's Hyde Park, or the regal promenades of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Many people enjoy visiting city parks, and some make substantial journeys in order to reach them.

Following my stopover in Japan en route to New Zealand for Christmas, I can now claim to have visited Tokyo. However, I can't say that I've seen many of Tokyo's sights; in fact I have seen only one. With only a few hours to spare in the Japanese capital, and not wishing to miss the opportunity of seeing at least a small corner of a country I had never visited before, I boarded an airport train and explored Ueno Park in Tokyo on a mild Sunday afternoon in December.

I chose this park for the simple reason that the Keisei Limited Express train that runs from Tokyo's Narita Airport terminates at Ueno Station close by the park entrance. With my command of spoken Japanese running to perhaps five words and my ability to count terminating at the number three, I was reluctant to venture far afield given the possibility of missing my onwards Air New Zealand flight. So I limited my little Japanese adventure to a straightforward low-intensity amble in the park. It turned out to be a good choice.

The train from Narita took 70 minutes to reach Ueno. In that time it passed through open fields, followed by medium-density suburban townhouses, and then the big city apartments and office blocks of the inner city. There were a few fellow gaijin travellers on the train, but most of my fellow passengers were locals. Like me, quite a few of them lolled sleepy-eyed as the carriage rattled along to its final destination. A few others adopted the Asian habit of wearing medical facemasks, indicating that they had a cold and did not wish to infect their fellow passengers with their impolite germs.

At the end of the ride I arrived at the super-clean Ueno Station. Emerging from underground onto a busy thoroughfare, I walked about 50 metres to the park entrance, which was clearly signposted in Japanese and English, and began my exploration.

The land for Ueno Park was given to the city by the then Emperor in 1924, and it is a firm favourite with Tokyo's inhabitants. Its broad pedestrian avenues are lined with mature cherry trees, and on this mild winter afternoon with the temperature about 13 to 15 degrees people were taking the opportunity to enjoy a walk in the sunshine.

The park is dotted with statues and shrines. Near the entrance the statue of Saigo Takamori (1827-77), unveiled in 1898, depicts the famed samurai with a silk belt holding in his middle-aged paunch while he walks his sprightly little dog. Down a broad flight of stairs lies Shinobazu Pond, a little sea of clacking dry reeds with a shrine to Benzaiten on an islet at its centre. Further into the park, past a selection of Japanese street performers juggling and performing acrobatics, an equestrian statue of Prince Komatsu No Miya Akihito (d. 1903) keeps a watchful eye on the passing cyclists and the nearby softball players practicing their hitting inside their towering chain-link fences, which prevent fly-balls from beaning other park-goers.

At the far end of the park sits the impressive Tokyo National Museum building. While it looked intriguing, I didn't have enough time to do it justice so I resorted to visiting its gift shop instead. There I purchased some pretty postcards depicting 19th century Japanese paintings of courtiers and cats (not in the same picture though).

On the way back to the station I passed the National Science Museum and was both impressed and slightly bemused by the huge model of a diving blue whale outside. Perhaps passing motorists might mistake the museum for a fast-food joint? Next door was the National Museum of Western Art with its outdoor sculpture garden, where I admired casts of Rodin's The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais and Bourdelle's Hercules the Archer, and one of the original three casts of Rodin's monumental La Porte de l'Enfer (The Gates of Hell).

While I had only had time to visit a tiny corner of massive Tokyo, I was glad to have been able to enjoy the sights and take a few photographs. As I drowsily observed the scenes of Tokyo life as the Narita train passed through the city, I promised that I would return one day to explore the city with a little bit more time up my sleeve.
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